For more than six years, Literacy First has been proud to count Benchmark Bank as a dedicated corporate partner. The homegrown business has provided immeasurable time, talent and treasure to the program, including acting as a founding sponsor of the young professional-planned fundraiser “The Study Social”. Since its inception in 2014, the event has grown exponentially, raising over $120,000 and initiating a new generation of philanthropists in Austin.
Thanks to the tremendous leadership of Planning Committee Chair, Literacy First Advisory Board Member and Benchmark Bank employee, Claire Wiygul, the impact of the Study Social continues to expand. We sat down with Claire just before the 6th annual event to discuss her involvement with the Study Social and Literacy First, and how the support of Benchmark Bank has helped make it all possible.
What inspired your interest in philanthropy and giving back?
I learned compassion and giving back from my mother. Growing up, she was always involved in Junior Auxiliary, and I’d observe her genuine interest in other people and their well-being. She’s always cared, and I’ve always wanted to be like her.
Why do you feel it’s important for people to give back to their community? What about companies?
It’s a way to strengthen your community and meet people in it. In our case, these kids are the future of our community and we need to help them unlock their potential and prepare them for success. Giving back also helps you gain perspective and learn how to be a team player. It’s a great way for businesses to connect to the community and grow connections into relationships by working side by side for a great cause.
How and when did you first learn about Literacy First?
I was having a conversation with my mentor and boss, Sheila Bostick (Sr. Vice President at Benchmark Bank), and told her my feelings about being involved in the community. She told me about a former employee of the bank, Rachel Jonkers, who helped start the Study Social in 2013. After researching, I was moved by the impact Literacy First has right here in Austin, changing the lives of thousands of local kids living in poverty and giving them a chance to be successful in school and in life.
What drove you to get involved with the organization?
Until I started researching Literacy First and their mission, I had no idea Texas was ranked among the lowest in reading skills in early grades in the US. The kids right here in our community are at high risk of ultimately dropping out of school. Since 1994, Literacy First has given over 20,000 local children a chance to be successful, and I wanted to get involved to continue their mission.
Why do you think early literacy is so important?
It’s the foundation for learning any subject, so it’s important to identify those who struggle early on. If you can’t read, you can’t learn. Most kids living in poverty don’t get the chance to become great readers, so it’s up to Literacy First and similar organizations to help them unlock their potential.
Can you talk a little about your involvement with Literacy First and your various volunteer positions?
Everyone on the Study Social committee plays a huge role in making this event happen. For the first three years, I served as a Committee Member, which is an all-encompassing role securing raffle and silent auction items, live entertainment, and food and liquor donations. This year, Sarah Lowery, Literacy First’s Development Specialist, asked me to serve as the Committee Chair. We had a lot of Study Social veterans move to different cities so Sarah and I recruited new committee members and, honestly, none of this would be possible without them. We have an amazing and diverse group coming from a variety of industries: real estate, finance, event planning, and many others. We brainstorm new ideas like how we get more people to the event and how to keep them engaged.
Last year, I was asked to join the Board of Literacy First, where I have learned so much about what goes on behind-the-scenes, our new sustainable model, and education in Texas. It’s an exciting time to be a part of Literacy First.
Why do you think Benchmark Bank chooses to continue partnering with and supporting Literacy First?
Benchmark encourages employees to get involved with nonprofits and civic organizations we’re passionate about, and they support us and the organizations we choose. As an employer, Benchmark understands how important literacy is to the workforce from which they hire. If children cannot read they can’t make it through school. More than likely, they will live a life of poverty, and most will not make a positive contribution to our community. Benchmark appreciates the positive difference Literacy First has on our children who are struggling to read. They felt a lot of pride in 2013 when their employees were outraged by the statistics on reading skills presented to them, and wanted to help make a difference through Literacy First. Since that time, Benchmark has had two employees serve on the Literacy First Board and many more assist though volunteering for the Study Social.
How have Sheila Bostick and your other colleagues at Benchmark Bank supported your involvement with Literacy First?
I’m thankful to Sheila for introducing me to Literacy First and the bank for supporting my involvement. The Board has monthly meetings in our conference room, and the bank has been a sponsor of The Study Social since its inception in 2013. Some of my colleagues have served on the event committee with me, and Benchmark buys all of us and our significant others tickets to the event. My colleagues and I get excited when this time of year rolls around, because our team always has a great time at the event. I’m lucky to work with so many amazing people who support me and Literacy First.
What is your goal for the Study Social this year?
The committee and I set a significantly higher fundraising goal for the 6th Annual Study Social, and my hope is we will reach that goal with the continued support from returning attendees as well as many new supporters. I want everyone to see the impact Literacy First has on the lives of thousands of local children and feel so moved that they’ll continue to support this mission.